After an eight point win against No. 13 Arizona, the UCLA Bruins seems to have finally hit their stride. They’ve won four straight, are only one game down in the Pac-12, and now seem to have almost certainly sealed a position in the NCAA tournament.
Still today’s game matters greatly. For one, it’s perhaps their best chance to take first place in the Pac-12 (Arizona plays a pretty good team in USC tonight). Secondly, a strong win over ASU (currently ranked No. 27 in the nation) could propel UCLA to the top twenty-five for the first time since November. With all that said, let’s take a look at the Arizona State Sun Devils.
Previewing the Sun Devils
ASU is a strange team and has had a strange season. They started the year 12-0 and in December were ranked third in the nation, but since have gone 6-6. It’s hard to say how they’ll fare against UCLA. On the one hands, they own a fifteen point win over No. 5 Xavier and a nine point loss to sub-par Stanford.
Despite being one of the smaller teams in the nation, the Sun Devils have been one of the nation’s top offenses. Fueled by a three guard attack, the Sun Devils are faster than most teams and like to spread the floor whenever possible. Their offensive physicality helps make up for their size (they currently rank 4th in the nation in free throws made).
The team is anchored by two senior guards. Tra Holder remains one of the conference’s best player, and is averaging 19.3 points per game this season while Shannon Evans leads the team in assists and has made 73 three-pointers this season. The third guard of the trio, Kodi Justice is a little more raw than his fellow guards but is a potent three point shooter and an aggressive defender.
The team’s top freshman is forward Romello White. White has been a constant factor this year, averaging 7.6 rebounds and 11.9 points per game. Ukrainian forward Vitaliy Shibel rounds up the starting lineup at the center position. Shibel stands 6’9’’ and, though he has strong range for a center, he’ll likely have a tough time with the larger Thomas Welsh. Also worth noting is freshman guard Remy Martin, the team’s smallest player, who has proven to be a curveball off the bench.
Despite their strong offense, ASU has struggled on defense. At their best they’re a fast, aggressive defense which forces turnovers but sometimes gets into foul trouble. At their worst they’re an undersized team which gets badly beaten in the post, allows too many three pointers, and is constantly outrebounded.
While ESPN gives ASU a 73.4% chance of winning, I’d probably call it 50-50. Both teams have a ton of talent, but have been plagued by inconsistency. They also both have iffy defenses and rely largely on a trio of guards. I think I’ll give it to UCLA by a hair. The Bruins are the bigger team and have been more consistent as of late. Kris Wilkes is a mismatch at guard. Of course, Thomas Welsh is a nightmare in the post while Holiday is probably slightly better than Holder. The end result is UCLA by a hair.
UCLA 85, ASU 82